We should talk about minute 24.
It’s the moment on “The Daily,” the New York Times podcast, when reporter Megan Twohey asks Harvey Weinstein’s lead defense attorney, Donna Rotunno, if she’s ever been sexually assaulted.
“I have not,” Rotunno answers. “I have not. Because I would never put myself in that position.”
Twohey, co-author (with Jodi Kantor) of “She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement,” which chronicles the Weinstein story from start to publication, pauses.
“So you’re saying — actually, I’m sorry,” Twohey says after a beat. “So you’re saying that you have never been sexually assaulted because you would never put yourself in the position of being sexually assaulted?”
“No,” Rotunno answers. “I’ve always made choices, from college-age on, where I never drank too much, I never went home with someone that I didn’t know, I just never put myself in any vulnerable circumstance. Ever.”
Rotunno has a role to play, and she’s not going to go off-script during an interview with the reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for the reporting that took down her client. Rotunno’s job is to cast doubt on Weinstein’s accusers. Her answer attempts to do just that.
But it also propels an ugly myth about assault that we need to push back on when it rears its ugly head.
Rape is not caused by poor choices. Rape is caused by rapists.
You can try to minimize your risks of being raped, just as you can try to minimize your risks of becoming the victim of any number of violent crimes. But that’s not always enough. And if it has, for you, been enough, you are also the beneficiary of some very good luck.
Good luck to have been born into a home in which no one preyed upon you. Far, far too many children aren’t so lucky.
Good luck to have never crossed paths with a predatory coach or mentor or youth group leader or priest or classmate or instructor or medical practitioner or boss.
Good luck to have not been the victim of spousal rape.
Good luck to have never been abducted.
Good luck to have gone through life, so far, without someone using their power — power in the form of a weapon, power in the form of physical size, power in the form of authority — to rob you of your bodily agency.
I wish every woman and man, girl and boy had such luck. They don’t.
Maybe Rotunno subscribes to the just-world fallacy — the belief that we live in a morally fair society, and people who encounter misfortune likely had some hand in causing that fate. That’s certainly easier than accepting that terrible things sometimes just happen. Unprovoked. Unjustly.
Or maybe she answered in the way that felt, to her, as honest as possible while still being as strategic as possible.
Regardless, her answer was toxic.
Because it adds to the already far too prevalent messages that assault survivors are slapped in the face with repeatedly: that they could have prevented their assault, that they had some hand in causing their assault, that they should have known better than to become a victim of assault.
It contributes to a culture of doubt and denial and blame that victims have to navigate when deciding whether to come forward with their stories — stories that, if they are heard and heeded, can save more people from being victimized. How many athletes may have been spared Larry Nassar’s reign of terror if coaches and parents and college administrators acted as soon as the gymnasts in his care started speaking up?
And it slows us down from learning what we really need to grasp and understand about sexual assault: that it is, above all, an abhorrent abuse of power. It is a stripping away of another person’s autonomy. It is a debasing of that person’s humanity. It says, “I matter. You don’t.”
No one puts themselves in that position. To surrender their autonomy and humanity. To not matter.
Rotunno is doing her job. Maybe it will work in court; maybe it won’t. Maybe Weinstein will walk; maybe he won’t.
But when her words float into the national dialogue as they did on that podcast, the rest of us get to make our own judgment. The rest of us get to reject that (il)logic.
The rest of us get to overrule that kind of toxic messaging and make sure it doesn’t find a safe place to land and grow and spread.
Heidi Stevens writes her Balancing Act column for the Chicago Tribune.